Add North Korea’s human rights abuses to agenda for truly momentous meeting

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The announcement at the White House by South Korea’s national security adviser that President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un by May this year is not one of the most significant breakthroughs in international relations. Sure, it marks the first meeting between the president of the United States and the leader of North Korea, and potentially the first ever head-of-state with whom Kim has met for discussions of any kind.

Despite these firsts, it would be foolish to ascribe much significance to this announcement. It also would be extremely premature to engage in self-congratulation at the apparent capitulation of Kim to Trump’s tough talk.

{mosads}So, why is this much ado about nothing? First, President Trump previously conditioned talks with Kim Jong-Un upon the latter’s willingness to denuclearize North Korea. Yet, the announcement of the meeting does not meet with that condition. South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-Yong stated only that Kim is “committed to denuclearization.” Taken at face value, these words appear to be merely hortative, expressing a vague hope for a nuclear-free world, rather than a precise indicator of a willingness to renounce nuclear weapons.


Second, Chung relayed a “pledge” by Kim to “refrain from further nuclear or missile tests.” This is largely meaningless — North Korea does not need to conduct further nuclear tests at this time, and missile tests probably could wait for several months to a year, pending technology capability improvements.

Effectively, Kim Jong-un has scored a massive coup. Despite giving up nothing, he has managed to persuade President Trump to make the long journey to his turf. It gives Kim a significant esteem boost with his domestic audience and allows him to take the high ground. More importantly, if he is able to persuade the United States to roll back sanctions, he will buy time and execute the same delicate dance that North Korea has executed before.

Trump’s trip to South Korea to meet with Kim does not have to be futile. This requires us to inject some hard realism into a naïve rhetoric that is framing the discussion — the illusion that North Korea will just give up its nuclear weapons. Why would any state that has worked so hard to develop its weapons, and one that is paranoid about foreign threats, give up its insurance policy?

Imagine if North Korea did not have nuclear weapons; at the height of the war of words with Trump, there was a real likelihood of a military strike by the United States. It was only the existence of nuclear weapons and an effective delivery mechanism that staved off this threat. So, viewed purely from the lens of North Korea’s self-interest, it would not be rational to give up the weapons lightly.

If the expectation is reframed away from naiveté to pragmatism, the talks could yet prove to be as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall. What does pragmatism require? First, an absolute hard cap on further developing nuclear weapons and missiles. Second, this cap has to be subject to a compulsory verification regime — both periodic and random testing by independent inspectors. Third, and perhaps most important, an immediate end to the horrific human rights situation in North Korea.

To recollect, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, chaired by former

High Court of Australia justice, the Hon. Michael Kirby, reported — based on hundreds of interviews, hearings, reviews of satellite imagery and other evidence — that the regime “systematically employ[s] violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations in order to create a climate of fear that preempts any challenge” to its survival. The commission documented the use of torture, deliberate starvation, forced labour, disappearances of political prisoners, rape and executions.

The regime was found to have held thousands of individuals in political prison camps, and “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades.” Damningly, the commission found that crimes against humanity had been committed pursuant to policies established by those at the “highest level of the state.” These crimes against humanity entail “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Trump would show singular leadership by engaging Kim on the human rights situation instead of a sole focus on the nuclear question. If he is able to nudge Kim into improving the living conditions of his people by committing to human rights monitors, that would mark a transformational moment. It would probably also make Trump a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

Kim Jong-Un must be gloating about his master stroke in getting a man who labeled him “little rocket man,” and who previously disdained talks, to undertake a long trip for nothing. By putting the human rights issues firmly on the table and providing teeth to the United Nations’ work in documenting horrific abuses, the U.S. president could turn the tables on Kim and achieve some actual progress. Can Trump show that leadership?

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and the pro vice chancellor for academic innovation Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Tags Donald Trump Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un Korea North Korea North Korea–United States relations Nuclear proliferation Politics

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